Christophe Bailleau & Neal Williams: On Soft Mountains We Work Magic
Fenêtre Records

A trans-Atlantic collaboration between French electronic sound sculptor (and librarian) Christophe Bailleau and Atlanta, Georgia-based folk singer-songwriter Neal Williams (aka Possible Selves), On Soft Mountains We Work Magic presents an arresting mosaic of sound that structurally segues between wild instrumental passages and slow country-folk songs featuring the calm meander of Williams' voice. On paper, the participants' styles seem so different that the project shouldn't work but it does, and a major reason why it does is that the two collapse the boundaries separating their songs. Having Bailleau's sonic treatments inhabit the background of Williams' tunes makes the material feel seamlessly connected and unified (e.g., in “When Does It Start,” glockenspiel tinkles and fragmentary plinks and plunks augment the slow unfurl of Williams' voice). In general, the fluid integration of the two artists' contributions ensures that the album registers as a full-fledged collaboration rather than the prototypical “split” CD where artists' songs merely alternate.

Calling the album's instrumental material sonically rich hardly does justice to the multi-layered swirls of electroacoustic psychedelia concocted by Bailleau (Sebastian Roux and Anaël Honings also contribute sounds to a small number of tracks). On Soft Mountains We Work Magic begins with the blossoming overture “Tilleul” (actually a remix of Silencio's “Like a Friday Night on La-La land”), a slow-motion expanse of emerald tones and scattered alien noises that flows into the melancholic folk of “Moistened Palms.” Here and elsewhere, Williams' voice and acoustic guitar cut a clear swathe through the idiosyncratic and occasionally eruptive mass that unspools in the background. “A Lucky Dip” offers a classic slice of rustic folk storytelling with Williams recounting the travails of a wandering outlaw (“I burned my eyes / watching the sun … You know I like conflict / So follow me son / To a brand new village / To lay my things and be done”) while squealing noise swells around him. Drenched in sonic effects, “Future Plans” isn't, as expected, about the promise of things to come but instead wryly reflects on a failed relationship (“Dear, are you wonderin' / Where did things go wrong?”). Offsetting these relatively conventional song pieces are multi-hued soundscapes such as “ Eden ,” a churning, Oval-like vortex of blurry noises, and “Emulette,” whose ingredients include smoldering guitars, rattles, creaks, and crackle. One of the collection's most appealing qualities is its dynamic range: the decision to offset the blistering density of the instrumental settings with the down-to-earth quiet of the folk songs is an inspired idea that helps separate the album from the ever-growing crowd.

August 2008